Heroin isn’t the most commonly abused drug in the United States. In fact, it’s not even close to reaching the top spot. However, it’s still a major drug of concern simply because it is so very good at causing addiction. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that 23 percent of people who use heroin, even if they plan to take the drug only once, become dependent on the substance. The drug is just that powerful, and it can quickly ensnare people who never thought they’d develop an addiction to any sort of drug.
This doesn’t mean, however, that people who abuse heroin are doomed to deal with an addiction issue for the rest of their days. There are a number of ways in which this addiction can be addressed, and often, therapy can help people to change their lives for the better. Those who have an addiction do need help, but when it’s provided, they could leave heroin behind for good.
Born in a Laboratory
Heroin gets its kick from a natural ingredient found inside the poppy plant. The white substance that oozes out of the seed pods of this plant can be intoxicating, but the producers of heroin tweak and alter this substance in order to make it both portable and powerful. Inside laboratories, they heat up the goo and combine it with other chemicals and natural agents until they’ve produced the product they think will sell in the marketplace.
At the end of the production process, heroin might look like a sticky, black brick. It might also look a little like a white or brown pile of sand. These substances can be smoked or inhaled, and the effect on the body can be almost instantaneous. The drug has specific receptors that dot the brain and spinal cord, and when the drug is in play, it hits those receptors hard and delivers a punch that’s hard to ignore. In mere moments, people might feel relaxed and euphoric, all at the same time.
It’s the experience of that first hit of heroin that keeps users coming back for more. But chasing the sensation of that first high can become a full-time job. The brain tends to adjust in response to the drug, meaning that people might be required to take bigger doses in order to feel the same sense of release. In the end, they may never feel the same overwhelming sensation. Instead, they may feel just ill and sad between doses, and they may need heroin in order to behave in a natural manner and stave off sickness. It’s a physical dependence, and it can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms when people try to heal.
Moving Through Withdrawal
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, withdrawal associated with heroin is rarely life-threatening. As long as people are in relatively good health when the process begins, the symptoms they’ll face won’t come close to causing them to lose their lives. However, the physical signs associated with heroin withdrawal can certainly be uncomfortable and can include:
- Nausea and abdominal cramping
- Sore muscles that jump
People who go through this process may feel physical distress, but the emotional discomfort they face could be even more severe. With each little pang of pain they feel, their brain cells call out for heroin as a solution. The craving for drugs can be intense and difficult to control, pervading the person’s thoughts from morning until night.
Medications can be vital during this process, as they can soothe physical signs of distress while allowing deep cravings to fade in significance. Sometimes, people who have access to medications feel so restored that they’re able to resist direct temptation. Researchers writing in the journal Science tested this theory directly by giving people with heroin addictions the medication buprenorphine, and these clients also had access to heroin. Those who took buprenorphine took significantly less heroin than those who did not. In fact, those who didn’t have buprenorphine took between 93-100 percent of the heroin available to them, while those who had eight milligrams of buprenorphine per day reduced their use of heroin by 69-98 percent.
Studies like this demonstrate how powerful replacement medications can be during the withdrawal process, but there are some people who need to stay on the medications for a longer period of time. When their replacements are removed, they once again feel symptoms of withdrawal, and the old cravings for drugs may return. Clients like this might need to stay on replacement medications for months, or even years, so they don’t relapse to heroin use.
While medications can be helpful for some people, it’s important to note that not everyone who has a heroin addiction needs replacement drugs in order to heal. The Drug and Alcohol Services Information System seems to suggest that most people don’t get drugs during withdrawal, as only 30 percent of people who entered treatment programs for a heroin addiction problem in 2005 were planning to use this therapy as they healed. Some people don’t have addictions that are severe enough to merit medication therapies, while others are averse to the idea of using a medication to help them get sober.
In the end, whether people use medications or not, they will be provided with other forms of treatment that can help them to heal. Often, these therapies hold the real keys that can allow people to change their lives for the better.
There are a variety of different addiction therapies available, and they all work just a little bit differently. Some focus on skill-building, allowing people to soothe the triggers that might lead them to heroin abuse. Instead of using the drug to relax and forget a bad day, for example, they might learn how to meditate or exercise. These activities can make them feel just a little better, with no drugs involved. Some therapies allow people to process prior trauma, so they can work through their emotions without drowning them with drugs. Therapies might even help people to repair their relationships with their families, so they’ll communicate more effectively and feel less trapped in old patterns that are no longer helpful.
Support groups might also play a role in the healing process for some people with heroin addictions. These programs are run by peers, which means there are no therapists involved. It’s not a form of formal treatment, but it can give addicts in recovery access to:
- Understanding peers
- Role models
- Mentorship opportunities
- Sober friends
- Lessons on addiction
Weekly meetings play a huge role in the help provided, but some people find that the peers they meet and the stories they share play a big role in their ability to keep their cravings under control. People might need this help in the beginning of the recovery process, and going to meetings might be vital here, but they might need continued assistance when the formal healing process is complete. Participation in a support group can help, as there is no time limit involved. People can go to meetings as long as they’d like to do so, and some keep going for the rest of life.
Measuring the benefit of a support group is difficult, but in a study in the journal Substance Abuse, researchers found that heroin addicts in recovery rated their participation in a support group as more helpful than the replacement medications they took. They just found the help here to be indispensable, and the researchers found that ongoing participation was associated with intense sobriety. Those who went to meetings and participated just did better, and they weren’t afraid to attribute that success to their support group.
It’s relatively easy for family members to read up on the heroin recovery process and decide that it’s the right path for someone they love. It can be hard, however, for someone with a heroin addiction to make the decision to change. In fact, some people with addictions might claim that they don’t even have an addiction and that they can quit their use and abuse of substances at any point, without any complications at all.
Some families overcome denial like this by holding a formal intervention conversation in which they outline all of the addiction-related problems they’ve seen and the ways in which therapy might help. Often, at the end of a talk like this, people truly understand the damage an addiction is causing, and they choose to get better. But there are some people who just won’t listen the first time the issue comes to light. Dealing with people like this can be hard, but a family-focused therapy program might help.
A new form of intervention, known as CRAFT, is designed to help families put subtle pressure on someone with an addiction. The family chooses to change, whether or not the person with the addiction chooses to do so, and the family’s changes tend to make an addiction to heroin less rewarding. The person with the addiction might not be included in family outings while intoxicated, and the person might also be required to deal with all physical and sociological consequences of heroin abuse without the help of the family. No more rushing to help in a crisis and no more covering up tracks, when a CRAFT intervention is in play. At the same time, the family continues to push for change by describing how therapy works and how it can help.
This type of intervention isn’t quick, and it can be hard work. But it can also bring about some really amazing results. For example, in a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers found that 76.7 percent of people who used CRAFT and aftercare support groups were able to engage the person they loved in a treatment program. It’s likely that those who didn’t succeed were still able to find some measure of comfort, as they were able to detach their feelings and behaviors from the acts of the person addicted to heroin.
Living with someone addicted to heroin can certainly be lonely, but know that you’re not alone. At Black Bear Lodge, we’d like to help. Call us, and we can explore the heroin addiction treatment options available and come up with a plan that seems just right for you and your family. We can work with your insurance company, to make sure the care you need is paid for, and we can set up an intake appointment for the person you love, so heroin addiction treatment can get started right away. We can even link you with an interventionist, so you can hold an addiction conversation in the most healthful manner possible. Just call.